The Diaspora: Exploring Exile from the Homeland

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Special Edition 2011
  • byHwang Sok-yong

It is lamentable that people have to leave their homeland due to political, religious, and financial difficulties. These people are victims of history, especially if they were forced to flee because of war or colonization.

Literature about the Korean diaspora simultaneously exposes and heals the sufferings of those who left their homeland and were unable to return. But moreover, it proposes valuable lessons for those of us who have survived being part of the diaspora. Korea was not exempt from the difficulties of the past century. The Japanese occupation in the early 20th century, the Korean War in the 1950s that immediately followed independence from Japan, and the division of the Korean peninsula created a giant wave of departures. Hwang Sok-yong’s Shim Chong (Munhakdongne, 2003), Kim Young-ha’s Black Flower (Munhakdongne, 2003), Lee Ho-cheol’s Southerners, Northerners (Minumsa, 2002) and Ku Hyoseo’s Nagasaki Papa (Edition Ppul, 2008) are four representative novels of the Korean diaspora that explore the lives of those who left the peninsula.

Concerning the time period each novel takes place, Hwang’s Shim Chong comes first. It begins in the 19th century when modernization and westernization were sweeping the country. Shim Chong, a girl born in a small village on the Korean peninsula, is sold to Nanjing, China. From there she moves on to numerous cities in various countries such as Jinjang, Taiwan, Singapore, the Ryuku, and Nagasaki. She is called different names each time she moves to a new city: Lenhwa, Lotus, Renka. The different names show each new life she had to start in every new place and the difficulties that came with such changes.

Shim Chong the novel is not only a narrative of the adversities of Shim Chong the character, but also a narrative of growth that does not pertain solely to the protagonist but also to a larger general populace. As a woman, Shim Chong illustrates the contradictions of modern society and embraces those who have been hurt by those same contradictions:

She thought about all of the places she would not be able to return to once she had left. They felt like a vanishing dream. Like yesterday or the day before yesterday, they were places in time that she could never return to. Chong turned to look at the ships heading northeast towards the horizon. The rising sun obliterated the middle of the horizon into whiteness. Her heart beat fast as she glanced at the sun glittering and breaking over the water. She was setting off for a new land.

Shim Chong’s goal was no longer to return to her hometown but to discover and actualize herself wherever it was that she went. Thus, China, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore do not remain as merely spheres of hardship, but locations of new possibilities.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, the Korean peninsula was subjected to the rule of Japan. At this time, Koreans left their homeland for political and financial reasons and headed towards Manchuria and Japan, and even places further away across the ocean. Kim Young-ha’s Black Flower is a novel about the 1,033 Koreans who boarded the “The Ilford,” a British cargo ship headed for Mexico. The ship’s passengers are composed of fallen aristocrats, ex-soldiers, ex-priests, farmers, and vagrants. The passengers are disappointed when they finally reach Mexican soil and get scattered across the country. As a young writer Kim did not focus on the specific difficulties of the era, but rather on how the experiences of these Koreans demolish and reshape their traditional values:

Whenever the great waves pushed against the sides of the ship, the Koreans confined in the cargo compartment would become entangled with one another and be forced to forget their manners and decorum. The bodies of men and women, nobleman and peasants, collided unceasingly and inappropriately. Chamber pots were knocked over and shattered. Their contents of vomit, urine, and excrement spilled onto the floor of the boat. Cursing, sighing, reproach, and brawls were daily occurrences along with the ceaseless stench.

Such scenes from the British cargo ship crossing the Pacific demonstrate that the traditional values of Korean culture were no longer apt when it came to survival. Will modern values replace the position of traditional values that have collapsed? It seems as if the writer has projected values in his work that go beyond the traditional and the modern to reflect the postmodern.

The freedom that Koreans tasted after independence from the Japanese occupation was short-lived. Soon the peninsula was embroiled in a civil war fueled by outside forces. Of the numerous tragedies that resulted from the Korean War, the greatest tragedy lies in the millions of people who were forced to flee their hometowns, never able to return.

Lee Ho-cheol’s Southerners, Northerners is a story about a boy who was drafted by the North Korean army at the age of 19. He is captured by South Korean soldiers and subsequently ends up living in South Korea, later becoming a writer. It is the autobiographical story of the writer Lee and his own displacement. This veteran writer sharply yet calmly narrates the past of a boy who attends high school in the North Korean industrial city Wonsan, loves reading Chekhov and Dostoevsky, goes to war wearing a military uniform, and ends up as a prisoner of war in Busan, a city at the southern part of the peninsula. Eventually he ends up in Seoul where he lives the rest of his life. An unchanging faith for human kind, regardless of geographical location, is the premises of this sharp yet calm narrative:

Is this a newspaper for prisoners? One is a prisoner and the other a soldier in charge of the newspaper. But what is this? These random writers. Tolstoy? Chekhov? The tone of our voices, the atmosphere, and the words we exchanged—before we knew it we had become intimate friends. And in this, nobody was allowed to participate or invade.

Believe it or not what should have been a brutal POW investigation became a discussion about Chekhov. It is something of a miracle; we have gained a small seed of hope after discovering the possibility of human communication in an unfamiliar land with unfamiliar people.

Starting from the 19th century with Shim ChongBlack Flower in the 20th century, to Southerners, Northerners in the mid-20th century, we finally come to Ku Hyoseo’s novel Nagasaki Papa, based in the 21st century. While Ku’s book does not include a major event such as the Japanese colonization of Korea, he nonetheless captures the microscopic Korean diaspora through each character navigating their way through the fabric of Japanese society: the protagonist who immigrates to Japan from Korea and works in the kitchen at a restaurant called Next Door, the indigenous Ainu cook who is isolated and lonely, the manager who is in love with a woman from the pariah community, and the 3rd generation Korean-Japanese son who is at odds with his father that insists on keeping their Joseon nationality. Of course the main character himself is also an exile who has been ostracized from his native Korea and forced to live in a foreign land:

Must boundaries be drawn and named? I thought of all the nameless items that filled Susuyi’s small room. It would be convenient to call people by names such as Korean, Japanese, and Ainu to differentiate them. But that is when the discrimination begins. Don’t keep telling Susuyi that he is an Ainu. He never says that. He is a 23-year-old talented cook working at the restaurant called Next Door. Of course, that’s not all of him. We don’t call him ‘Cook, Cook!’ He doesn’t want that. He is a cook but he wants to be known for something much more than that.

Whether they have left their hometown literally or figuratively, each character is scarred and must cope with pain. Yet, in this restaurant a possibility of a new community emerges: a community where no one is confined by another. This is the world Ku anticipates in the Korean diaspora of the 21st century.


1. Shim Chong, fille vendue
Hwang Sok-yong, Zulma, 2010
2. Nagasaki Papa
Ku Hyoseo, Edition PPUL
2008, 302pp., ISBN 9788901079103
3. 南のひと北のひと
Lee Ho-cheol, 新潮社, 2000
4. Fleur noire
Kim Young-ha, Éditions Philippe Picquier, 2007